Our “feature” last night was an intriguing 20th Century-Fox production from 1936 that TCM was showing as part of their “Star of the Month” tribute to Barbara Stanwyck, A Message to Garcia, “suggested” by Elbert Hubbard’s essay of the title about a genuine event of the Spanish-American War of 1898-1900 and also the memoir by Andrew Summers Rowan (John Boles) — a lieutenant at the time but later a colonel — who was the U.S. officer who actually delivered the message to the Cuban rebel general Calixto Garcia (Enrique Acosta — an actual Latino playing one on screen! What a concept!). But the writers, W. P. Lipscomb and Gene Fowler (the American Film Institute Catalog credits Sam Hellman and Gladys Lehman with “contributions to scenario construction”), pretty much cut-and-pasted the real events into the typical Hollywood movie formula, leading Rowan and his comrades, Lita Maderos (Barbara Stanwyck) as the sister of a young officer in Garcia’s army — she gets involved after her father, who was supposed to lead Rowan to Garcia, is caught by the Spaniards and killed by a firing squad — and Sgt. Dory (Wallace Beery), an American expatriate ex-Marine who attaches himself to Rowan even though Lita tells him Dory is not to be trusted: he sold the rebels bullets filled with sawdust instead of powder, then confesses he sold the Spaniards such bullets too — which makes me wonder what the battle would have looked like if both sides had unwittingly been armed with his false “ammunition.” It’s basically a chase scene across Cuba, with the Spanish forces led by a mercenary spymaster named Ivan Krug (Alan Hale — quite a bit of off-type casting for the man remembered today mostly for his comic-relief parts in Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers!) after the colonel and his message, which in real life Rowan had memorized but in the movie is written down with invisible ink so it can better serve as a classic MacGuffin. (The reason the message is so important is that it not only promises General Garcia relief from the Spanish siege of his position but tells him exactly where the American soldiers will land on the island.) The movie is a sloppily constructed series of confrontations between Rowan’s ragtag band and Krug’s forces, ending in a climax in which Rowan walks into what he thinks is Garcia’s headquarters, not realizing the Spaniards have retaken that city, and comes face to face with Krug, who tortures him by wrapping a knotted rope around his head and tightening it, and also throwing water in his face (so the “enhanced interrogations” at Guantánamo are nothing new!) until Rudolph Maté’s cinematography gives Boles the appearance of (the usual depictions of) Christ on the cross. Maté is the real star of this film; his images are beautifully wrought chiaroscuro, almost noir, making the “Cuban jungle” (it was actually shot entirely in the studio and a lot of the “exteriors” are clearly built inside soundstages) come alive as a place of slithering treachery, deception and evil. Alas, all Maté’s visual virtuosity only makes the movie seem sillier: as Charles put it, it’s the basic plot of The 39 Steps shot in the style of Casablanca.
The acting is variable; as I joked, John Boles was probably relieved that for once he was getting a script that did not require him to play Shirley Temple’s father, and he’s an O.K. action figure. Stanwyck (who was third choice for the role after Simone Simon and Rita Cansino, a Fox contractee whom Darryl Zanuck dropped when his 20th Century Pictures, for which this was produced, absorbed Fox; later she would change her name to Rita Hayworth, sign with Columbia and become a superstar) is pretty much wasted; her great strengths as an actress — the throb in her vocal delivery and the intensity with which she could read even quite ordinary dialogue — are not only wasted on this film but, like Maté’s glorious cinematography, actually counterproductive (and, as one imdb.com commentator noted, she speaks Spanish with a Norteamericaño accent and English with no accent at all — though given her shaky, now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t attempts at an Irish brogue in Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific it’s probably just as well she didn’t attempt an authentic accent). Wallace Beery and Herbert Mundin get so oppressive as the so-called “comic relief” (so many films of this era were saddled with “comic relief” characters, and so few of them were actually funny) you actually start rooting for the Spaniards to kill them — Beery (borrowed from MGM) actually got top billing but through much of the movie I was wishing they’d borrowed Humphrey Bogart from Warners instead and presented the character more seriously (let’s face it, Bogart made much of his post-gangster career playing disillusioned, cynical expats!) — and at least Mundin, a British salesman for a food-canning company whose attempt to open the Cuban market was killed by the war, fulfills an important plot function: the messengers to Garcia keep themselves alive on his foodstuffs after they’re forced to flee one of the Spanish attacks without being able to take along their previous provisions. The New York Times review of this film when it was new gleefully pointed out all its deviations from historic fact — Rowan made his trip without encountering any Spanish forces at all, and he was not only delivering the message to Garcia, he was himself spying on the Spanish positions to determine the enemy’s troop strength and armaments — and also noted that the real General Garcia was still alive when the film was released, and Enrique Acosta looked so much like him that one extra who’d fought in the real war thought the general had come back to lead his troops into battle again. Indeed, one amusing thing about this movie is how much better groomed — with a neatly trimmed beard and a snazzy uniform — General Garcia is than the commanders of the supposedly more established Spanish troops he’s fighting, which is not at all the usual image of a guerrilla commander!